It was clear by late last Friday afternoon that Tennessee surgeon Sen. Bill Frist had wrapped up the votes for majority leader in the Senate, and that his elevation and the downfall of Trent Lott will go down as one of the great political strong-arm jobs of recent memory.
“It was, pardon the pun, a surgical strike,” says a Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “From the president’ s comments, to Senator Nickles’ to Secretary Powell’s and Governor Bush’s, and then Frist on Thursday night, it was like dominos, one falling on top of Lott after the other. Lott didn’t have a choice Friday morning, and he knew it.”
While the strategist said that there was nothing close to the political puppeteering going on in the White House that other media outlets have made out, there was a basic plan in place to put verbal pressure on Lott as he dug his heels into the Mississippi mud. But for all the former leader’s talk of building strong support inside the caucus, it was all bluster: “Lott had nothing. We knew it, he knew it. He had to cut a deal.”
That deal apparently involves at least a chairmanship of a committee for Lott, at the very least deserved and earned on the basis of his seniority and experience in the leadership. There is talk that Sen. Pete Domenici would step aside as chairman of the Energy Committee to make way for Lott. According to several sources, Lott suggested to several senators he spoke to late Thursday night and early Friday that he wouldn’t mind being chairman of the Budget Committee, a slot expected to be filled by Sen. Don Nickles, who got the ball rolling for Lott down “step aside” hill.
“That Budget chairmanship suggestion was sheer pettiness on Lott’s part,” says a White House staffer. “Everyone knows now that Nickles did the right thing.”
While there may be high-fives in the White House and among Frist supporters, one place that is sitting back and waiting is the House of Representatives. There, according to House sources, Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert and Republican leader Tom DeLay are angry at what they view as unprecedented interference by the executive branch in the inner workings of the legislative branch.
“If the White House thinks that it can just take over the Senate, control it, dictate terms and put their yes-man in charge, they aren’t ready for what we can do over here,” says a Ways and Means Committee staffer. “Frist may do the White House’s bidding, but we aren’t going to roll over. Frist has to prove he can work with the House leadership on legislation, and he hasn’t done a lick of that in his career.”
House leadership staffers say they expect Frist to almost certainly clash with the House leadership on a series of legislative issues in the opening days of the 108th Congress. “There is going to be this natural distrust, that Frist isn’t just doing the Senate’s bidding, he’s doing the White House’s bidding too,” says a former House member. “He’s going to have to work extremely hard to build a relationship with Denny and Tom. If he doesn’t, DeLay is going to eat his lunch. A lot. He just won’t play games.”